1902 Encyclopedia > Simon Bolivar

Simon Bolivar
South American revolutionary soldier
(1783-1830)




SIMON BOLIVAR, the hero of South American independence, was born in the city of Caracas, Venezuela, on the 24th July 1783. His father was Juan Vicente Bolivar y Ponte, and his mother Maria Concepción Palacios y Sojo, both descended of noble families in Venezuela. After acquiring the elements of a liberal education at home, Bolivar was sent to Europe to prosecute his studies, and with this view repaired to Madrid, where he appears to have resided for several years. Having completed his education, he spent some time in travelling, chiefly in the south of Europe, and visited the French capital, where he was an eye-witness of some of the last scenes of the Revolu-tion. Returning to Madrid, he married, in 1801, the daughter of Don N. Toro, uncle of the marquis of Toro in Caracas, and embarked with her for America, intending, it is said, to devote himself to the improvement of his large estate. But this plan was frustrated by the premature death of his young wife, who fell a victim to yellow fever ; and Bolivar again visited Europe, in order, by change of scene, to alleviate the sorrow occasioned by this bereavement.
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Simon Bolivar image

Simon Bolivar
(Painting by Ricardo Acevedo Bernal [1867 - 1930])



On his return home in 1809 he passed through the United States, where, for the first time, he had an opportunity of observing the working of free institutions ; and soon after his arrival in Venezuela he appears to have identified himself with the cause of independence which had already agitated the Spanish colonies for some years. Being one of the promoters of the movement at Caracas in April 1810, he received a colonel's commission from the revolutionaryjunta, and was associated with Luis Lopez Méndez in a mission to the court of Great Britain. Venezuela declared its independence of the mother country on July 5, 1811, and in the following year the war commenced in earnest by the advance of Monteverde with the Spanish troops. Bolivar was intrusted with the command of the important post of Puerto Cabello, but not being supported he had to evacuate the place ; and owing to the inaction of Miranda the Spaniards recovered their hold over the country.


Bolivar at Congress of Angostura (image)


Bolívar, now ratified as The Liberator, delivers a message to the Congress of Angostura, February 1819
(Painting by Tito Salas, 1919)



Like others of the revolutionists Bolivar took to flight, and succeeded in reaching Curacao in safety. He did not, however, remain long in retirement, but in September 1812, hearing of important movements in New Granada, repaired to Carthagena, where he received a commission to operate against the Spanish troops on the Magdalena River. In this expedition he proved eminently successful, driving the Spaniards from post to post, until arriving at the confines of Venezuela he boldly determined to enter that province and try conclusions with General Monteverde himself. His troops did not number more than 500 men; but, in spite of many discouragements, he forced his way to Merida and Truxillo, towns of some importance in the west of Venezuela, and succeeded in raising the population to his support. Forming his increased forces into two divisions, he committed the charge of one to his colleague Rivas, and pushing on for Caracas the capital, issued his decree of " war to the death." A decisive battle ensued at Lastoguanes, where the Spanish troops under Monteverde sustained a crushing defeat. Caracas was entered in triumph on the 4th of August 1813, and Monteverde took refuge in Puerto Cabello. General Marino effected the liberation of the eastern district of Venezuela, and the patriots obtained entire possession of the country in January 1814. This success was, however, of very brief duration. The royalists, effectually roused by the reverses they had sustained, concentrated all their means, and a number of sanguinary encounters ensued. Bolivar was eventually defeated by Boves near Cura, in the plains of La Puerta, and compelled to embark for Cumana with the shattered remains of his forces. Caracas was retaken by the Spaniards in July ; and before the end of the year 1814 the royalists were again the undisputed masters of Venezuela. From Cumana Bolivar repaired to Carthagena, and thence to Tunja, where the revolutionary congress of New Grenada was sitting. Here, notwithstanding his misfortunes and the efforts of his personal enemies, he was received and treated with great consideration. The con-gress appointed him to conduct an expedition against Santa Fe de Bogota, where Don Cundinamarca had refused to acknowledge the new coalition of the provinces. In De-cember 1814 he appeared before Bogota with a force of 2000 men, and obliged the recalcitrant leaders to capitulate,—a service for which he received the thanks of congress. In the meanwhile Santa Martha had unfortunately fallen into the hands of the royalists, and Bolivar was ordered to the relief of the place. In this, however, he was not successful, General Morillo having landed an overwhelming Spanish force. Hopeless of the attempt, he resigned his commission and embarked for Kingston, Jamaica, in May 1814. While residing there an attempt was made upon his life by a hired assassin, who, in mistake, murdered his secretary.

From Kingston Bolivar repaired to Aux Cayes in Hayti, where he was furnished with a small force by President Petion. An expedition was organized, and landed on the mainland in May 1816, but proved a failure. Nothing daunted, however, he obtained reinforcements at Aux Cayes, and in December landed first in Margarita, and then at Barcelona. Here a provisional government was formed, and troops were assembled to resist Morillo, who was then advancing at the head of a strong division. The hostile forces encountered each other on the 16th of February 1817, when a desperate conflict ensued, which lasted during that and the two following days, and ended in the defeat of the royalists. Morillo retired in disorder, and being met on his retreat by Paez with his llaneros, suffered an additional and more complete overthrow. Being now recognized as commander-in-chief, Bolivar proceeded in his career of victory, and before the close of the year had fixed his headquarters at Angostura on the Orinoco. At the opening of the congress which assembled in that city on the 15th February 1819 he submitted an elaborate exposi-tion of his views on government, and concluded by surrendering his authority into the hands of congress. Being, however, required to resume his power, and retain it until the independence of the country had been completely established, he reorganized his troops, and set out from Angostura, in order to cross the Cordilleras, effect a junction with General Santander, who commanded the republican force in New Grenada, and bring their united forces into action against the common enemy. This bold and original design was crowned with complete success. In July 1819 he entered Tunja, after a sharp action on the adjoining heights ; and on the 7th of August he gained the victory of Bojaca, which gave him immediate possession of Bogota and all New Grenada.

Bolivar at the Battle of Carabobo (image)

Battle of Carabobo, June 24, 1821
(Painting by Martín Tovar y Tovar, 1897)



This campaign is unquestionably Bolivar's most brilliant achievement, and deserves much of the praise which has been lavished on it. His return to Angostura was a sort of national festival. He was hailed as the deliverer and father of his country, and all manner of distinctions and congratulations were heaped upon him. Availing himself of the favourable moment, he obtained the enactment of the fundamental law of 17th December 1819, by which the republics of Venezuela and New Grenada were henceforth to be united in a single state, under his presidency, by the title of the Republic of Colombia. The seat of government was also transferred provisionally to Rosario de Cucuta, on the frontier of the two provinces, and Bolivar again took the field. Being now at the head of the most numerous and best appointed army the republicans had yet assembled, he gained important advantages over the Spaniards under Morillo, and on the 25th November 1820 concluded at Truxillo an armistice of six months, probably in the hope that the Spaniards weald come to terms, and that the further effusion of blood might be spared. If such were his views, however, they were disappointed. Morillo was recalled, and General Torre assumed the command. The armistice was allowed to expire, and a renewal of the contest became inevitable. Bolivar therefore resolved, if possible, to strike a decisive blow ; and this accordingly he did at Carabobo, where, encountering Torre, he so completely routed the Spaniards, that the shattered remains of their army were forced to take refuge in Puerto Cabello, where two years after they surrendered to Paez. The battle of Carabobo may be considered as having put an end to the war in Venezuela. On the 29th June 1820 Bolivar entered Caracas, and by the close of the year the Spaniards were driven from every part of the province except Puerto Cabello. The next step was to secure, by permanent political institutions, the independence which had been so dearly purchased; and, accordingly, on the 30th of August 1821, the constitution of Colombia was adopted with general approbation, Bolivar himself being president, and Santander vice-president.





There was, however, more work for him to do. The Spaniards, though expelled from Colombia, still held possession of the neighbouring provinces of Ecuador and Peru ; and Bolivar determined to complete the liberation of the whole country. Placing himself at the head of the army, he marched on Quito in Ecuador. A severe battle was fought at Pichincha, where, by the prowess of his colleague Sucre, the Spaniards were routed, and Quito was entered by the republicans in June 1822. Bolivar then marched upon Lima, which the royalists evacuated at his approach; and entering the capital in triumph, he was invested with absolute power as dictator, and authorized to call into action all the resources of the country. Owing, however, to the intrigues of the republican factions in Peru he was forced to withdraw to Truxillo, leaving the capital to the mercy of the Spaniards under Canterac, by whom it was immediately occupied. But this misfortune proved only temporary. By June 1824 the liberating army was completely organized; and taking the field soon after, it routed the vanguard of the enemy. Improving his advantage, Bolivar pressed forward, and on the 6th of August defeated Canterac on the plains of Junin, after which he returned to Lima, leaving Sucre to follow the royalists in their retreat to Upper Peru,-—an exploit which the latter executed with equal ability and success, gaining a decisive victory at Ayacucho, and thus completing the dispersion of the Spanish force. The possessions of the Spaniards in Peru were now confined to the castles of Callao, which Bodil maintained for upwards of a year, in spite of all the means that could be employed for their reduction. In June 1825 Bolivar visited Upper Peru, which having detached itself from the government of Buenos Ayres, was formed into a separate state, called Bolivia, in honour of the liberator. The first congress of the new republic assembled in August 1825, when Bolivar was declared perpetual protector, and requested to prepare for it a constitution of government.

We now come to that period in the liberator's career when his care was directed to the administration of the affairs of the freed provinces. He had been suc-cessful in raising those districts to the position of in-dependent states, and now devoted himself to the framing of such laws as seemed to him most suitable to the inhabitants. His endeavours to satisfy his countrymen in this respect did not always meet with encouragement, and sometimes exposed him to slander. In December 1824 Bolivar convoked a constituent congress for the February following; but this body, taking into consideration the unsettled state of the country, thought it proper to invest him with dictatorial power for another year. A grant of a million dollars was offered him but declined, and the congress adjourned, leaving the dictator absolute governor of Peru. His project of a constitution for Bolivia was presented to the congress of that state on the 25th May 1826, accompanied with an address, in which he embodied his opinions respecting the form of government which he conceived most expedient for the newlyestab-lished republics. This code, however, did not give satis-faction. Its most extraordinary feature consisted in the provision for lodging the executive authority in the hands of a president for life, without responsibility and with power to nominate his successor, a proposal which alarmed the friends of liberty, and excited lively apprehensions amongst the republicans of Buenos Ayres and Chili; whilst in Peru, Bolivar was accused of a design to unite into one state Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and to render himself perpetual dictator of the confederacy.

In the meanwhile the affairs of Colombia had taken a turn which demanded the presence of Bolivar in his own country. During his absence Santander had administered the government of the state ably and uprightly, and its independence had been recognized by other countries. But Paez, who commanded in Venezuela, having been accused of arbitrary conduct in the enrolment of the citizens of Caracas in the militia, refused obedience to the summons of the senate, and placed himself in a state of open rebellion against the Government, being encouraged by a disaffected party in the northern departments who desired separation from the rest of the republic.

Accordingly, having intrusted the government to a council nominated by himself, with Santa-Cruz at its head, Bolivar set out from Lima in September 1826, and hastening to Bogota, arrived there on the 14th November. He imme-diately assumed the extraordinary powers which by the constitution the president was authorized to exercise in case of rebellion. After a short stay in the capital he pressed forward to stop the effusion of blood in Venezuela, where matters had gone much farther than he could have contemplated. On the 31st December he reached Puerto Cabello, and the following day he issued a decree offering a general amnesty. He had then a friendly meeting with Paez and soon after entered Caracas, where he fixed his headquarters, in order to check the northern departments, which had been the principal theatre of the disturbances. In the meanwhile Bolivar and Santander were re-elected to the respective offices of president and vice-president, and bylaw they should have qualified as such in January 1827. In February, however,, Bolivar formally resigned the presidency of the republic, at the same time expressing a determination to refute the imputations of ambition which had been so freely cast upon him, by retiring into private life, and spending the remainder of his days on his patrimonial estate. Santander combated this proposal, urging him to resume his station as constitutional president, and declaring his own conviction that the troubles and agitations of the country could only be appeased by the authority and personal influence of the liberator himself. This view being confirmed by a resolution of congress, although it was not a unanimous one, Bolivar decided to resume his functions, and he repaired to Bogota to take the oaths. Before his arrival, however, he issued simultaneously three separate decrees,—one granting a general amnesty, another convoking a national convention at Ocana, and a third for establishing constitutional order throughout Colombia. His arrival was accelerated by the occurrence of events in Peru and the southern departments, which struck at the very foundation of his power. Not long after his departure from Lima, the Bolivian code had been adopted as the constitution of Peru, and Bolivar had been declared president for life on the 9th December 1826, the anniversary of the battle of Ayacucho. At this time the Colombian auxiliary army was cantoned in Peru, and the third division, stationed at Lima, consisting of veteran troops under Lara and Sands, became distrustful of Bolivar's designs on the freedom of the republic. Accordingly, in about six weeks after the adoption of Bolivar's new constitution, a counter-revolution in the government of Peru was effected by this body of dissatisfied veterans, and the Peruvians, availing themselves of the opportunity, abjured the Bolivian code, deposed the council appointed by the liberator, and proceeded to organize a provisional government for themselves. After this bloodless revolution the third division embarked at Callao on the 17th March 1827, and landed in the southern department of Colombia in the following month. Intelligence of these events reached Bolivar while in the north of Colombia, and he lost no time in preparing to march against the refractory troops, who formerly had placed such implicit confidence in him. But he was spared the necessity of coming to blows, for the leaders, finding the government in the hands of the national executive, had peaceably submitted to General Ovando. In the meanwhile Bolivar had accepted the presidency, and resumed the functions belonging to his official position. But although Colombia was, to all external appearance, restored to tranquillity, the nation was divided into two parties. Bolivar had, no doubt, regained the personal confidence of the officers and soldiers of the third division ; but the republican party, with Santander at their head, continued to regard with undisguised apprehension his ascendency over the army, suspecting him of a desire to imitate the career of Napoleon. In the mean-while all parties looked anxiously to the convention of Ocana, which was to assemble in March 1828, for a decided expression of the national will. The republicans hoped that the issue of its deliberations would be favour-able to their views : whilst the military, on the other hand, did not conceal their conviction that a stronger and more permanent form of government was essential to the public welfare. The latter view seems to have prevailed. In virtue of a decree, dated Bogota, the 27th August 1828, Bolivar assumed the supreme power in Colombia, and con-tinued to exercise it until his death, which took place at San Pedro, near Santa Martha, on the 17th December 1830.

Bolivar coin (image)

Bolivar's image on the one bolivar coin from Venezuela


In the career of this remarkable man, which was often embittered and was perhaps shortened by the suspicions and slanders of his colleagues in the work of liberation, certain circumstances, apparently well established, stand out, which deserve particular mention. He expended nine-tenths of a splendid patrimony in the service of his country; and although he had for a considerable period unlimited control over the revenues of three countries,— Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia,—he died without a shilling of the public money in his possession. He conquered the independence of three states, and called forth a spirit in the southern portion of the New World which can never be extinguished. He purified the administra-tion of justice; he encouraged the arts and sciences ; he fostered national interests; and he induced other coun-tries to recognize that independence which was in a great measure the fruit of his own exertions. Bolivar's remains were removed in 1842 to Caracas, where a monument was erected to his memory; and in 1858 the Peruvians followed the example by erecting an equestrian statue of the liberator in Lima.







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